Q&A with Professor Min Jee Jang

3/11/2024 Bethan Owen

We are excited to welcome new faculty member Professor Min Jee Jang to the department of bioengineering! To get to know Professor Jang a little better, we asked her a few questions about her background, her work, and what makes bioengineering important to her. 

Written by Bethan Owen

We are excited to welcome new faculty member Professor Min Jee Jang to the department of bioengineering! To get to know Professor Jang a little better, we asked her a few questions about her background, her work, and what makes bioengineering important to her.

Why are you passionate about bioengineering?

When I was young, I dreamed of becoming a medical doctor to help alleviate the suffering of patients and to improve lives. As I grew older, I realized I was more drawn to seeking fundamental solutions rather than providing mitigating care. While I recognize the equal importance of both approaches, my inclination and scientific curiosity led me to focus on bioengineering to address the core problems behind currently incurable diseases and develop ultimate solutions. Gene therapy in particular has become my primary field of research due to its immense promise and immediate translatability for a variety of diseases, including neurological and psychiatric disorders. In my lab, we are now dreaming of making impactful strides in this field by pioneering technical innovations in targeted, personalized non-invasive gene delivery.

Tell us a little about your academic background and emphasis within the field.

I was trained as a bio/neural engineer from the beginning. I received all my degrees—BS, MS, and PhD—from the Department of Bio and Brain Engineering at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in South Korea, which provided a multidisciplinary curriculum that gave me a fearless attitude toward delving into new fields. This led me to accumulate experiences from diverse fields of neuroscience and bioengineering during my training. 

In graduate school, I initially studied “brain-on-a-chip” technologies, pursuing the goal of creating the simplest circuit model of the brain by controlling neuronal growth with molecular micropatterns and interfacing with it using multielectrode arrays and optical imaging. Transitioning to my postdoctoral training in Dr. Viviana Gradinaru’s lab at Caltech, I expanded my research interests to in vivo mouse models and tool development for systemic gene delivery and molecular profiling of intact brains. 

What made you choose UIUC?

My primary consideration in accepting this position was the people with whom I would be working closely over the coming years. During my initial visit for the interview, I felt welcomed and enjoyed the interactions with the people I met. Indeed, since I accepted the offer (far before my official start), I have received unwavering support from various members of the department, for which I am genuinely grateful. 

The prospect of engaging with exceptional students from the world-class Grainger College of Engineering was also one of the many reasons that made my decision. Additionally, I was fascinated by the department’s new Neural Engineering program. As an engineer with a specific focus on neuroscience, the mission, curriculum, and evident passion the department has for this new program deeply impressed me, and I was eager to be part of it. Supportive environments and potential collaboration opportunities, not only within the department but also at the institute level across the campus, greatly appealed to me as well.

What project are you working on currently that you’re excited about?

My research interest lies in developing molecular neurotechnologies to understand the working mechanisms of the brain and to find effective therapies for its malfunctions. My lab is at the intersection of viral gene delivery and spatial omics, aiming to unravel the genetic and epigenetic architecture of the brain organization and dynamics and to use this knowledge to improve the precision of systemic gene delivery.

One key question driving our work is how to deliver transgenes precisely to the specific targets in the brain. While systemic rAAVs have enabled efficient brain-wide gene delivery, their low specificity poses challenges. One strategy to enhance specificity involves incorporating gene regulatory elements that harness the intrinsic transcriptional machinery within the AAV genome. Our cells are capable of expressing specific genes based on their types and conditions, all from the same shared genome. We are working to harness this innate regulatory mechanism to control the expression of transgenes delivered by rAAVs.

What advice do you have for students?

The most important lesson I have learned so far is that being persistent sets you up to seize grab opportunities when they come knocking. Everyone runs at their own pace on their own road, but as long as you keep running toward the goal, you will get there.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I love spending time with my son, who is also my best friend (I hope it goes both ways!). Being with him brings so much joy; he helps me break free from the restricted mind of an adult and sparks my creativity. Outside of work and mom duties, family time is a top priority for me. Reading and traveling are my other passions, and life without coffee is just unimaginable.

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This story was published March 11, 2024.